Desperate to get her ‘glide’ back after a double injury blow, sevens star Portia Woodman returned to her sporting beginnings – netball and athletics – and her Kaikohe hometown to play rugby again.
Watching Portia Woodman flying down the rugby field is like witnessing a champion sprinter running on clouds, striding out to a perfect beat.
And for five years, the world saw it, and was in awe of it.
Those who knew Woodman were well aware she grew up wanting to be the fastest woman in the world over 100m. But the rest of us were witnessing a rare talent that would make the Black Ferns Sevens superstar easily one of the most recognised names in the global game.
But the sight of ‘Wonder Woodman’ in full flight has been sidelined for the last two years, as she’s battled with, first, an Achilles, and then a hamstring injury.
Now Woodman – who’s played over 150 games for the Black Ferns Sevens and remains the world’s top sevens try-scorer – wants that feeling back.
She wants her body to return to a state where she can trust it to do what she wants to do. That’s been her priority during the Black Ferns Sevens’ recent six weeks of leave.
To help get there, she chose to head back to the two sports she grew up in – athletics and netball.
First, she got back into sprint training with Kerry Hill, a New Zealand sprint coach based in Tauranga, who’s coached a string of speedy Olympians.
“I loved it,” Woodman says. “I did that three to four times a week and it was real basic stuff, but it was about getting back to what I enjoyed when I was younger.
“When I was running after my Achilles injury [in 2018], I didn’t feel like I was gliding – and that’s the feeling I like to feel when I’m running hard or sprinting.”
The 29-year-old says returning to netball for three games was “really awesome”, and helped build up her confidence to start fully trusting her body again.
“I played netball for years, and with that you get agility and mobility. You feel the spring in your step,” the former Northern Mystics midcourter says. “But after the Achilles injury, I lost a bit of that, so going back to netball and feeling that movement again was important.”
It also helped her mentally, because she hadn’t been part of playing in a team for quite a while.
“Having to make decisions on the run, while you’re fatigued, and still trying to visualise and move quickly was amazing,” says Woodman. She played in the same netball team as Black Ferns sevens co-coach Corey Sweeney’s wife, Karla.
“She’s a legend and is so fit. She played centre for the whole game and I can’t even do it for a quarter. In fact, one quarter is longer than a whole sevens game, so the lungs were definitely getting a hit,” laughs Woodman.
Being back on the netball court and the running track was a great lead-in to Woodman’s return to rugby a fortnight ago – her first game of 15s rugby since 2017 (the year she won the Rugby World Cup with the Black Ferns, and was World Rugby’s women’s player of the year).
Woodman says the feeling running onto the pitch for Kaikohe Rugby Club – in the Northland women’s club rugby semi-finals – was the same sensation she used to get at an international match.
“As we were about to kick off, I felt my stomach sink. When I’m playing for New Zealand, I usually stand behind Kelly Brazier at the back of the line and my stomach also sinks every time,” she recalls.
“And I don’t know if I’m going to spew, or faint, or if my legs are going to cave out underneath me. That’s the feeling I got when I was on the field on Saturday. It was an incredible, exciting and nervous time.”
Woodman also loved having the support of her whānau on the sidelines.
“My mum and dad’s siblings were all there. My cousins, nieces, and nephews. Everyone was there to watch and it was kind of better than any international game because I was at home, in front of my whānau,” says Woodman.
Last weekend, Woodman ran out onto the field in Ahipara for the Northland women’s club final – defending champions Kaikohe versus Te Rarawa (which included another Black Ferns Sevens star, Tyla Nathan-Wong). Woodman scored two tries in Kaikohe’s second-half comeback, but it wasn’t enough to catch Te Rarawa, losing 22-19.
Kaikohe was Woodman’s home until she was nearly seven, when her family moved to Auckland for her dad’s teaching degree. Her dad is former All Black, Māori All Black and Northland legend Kawhena Woodman.
Portia is staying with an aunty on her Kaikohe farm, while she prepares to play for the Northland Kauri in the upcoming Farah Palmer Cup.
She’s looking forward to playing at Whangarei’s Okara Park. “Knowing my dad and all his siblings and my whānau have played there, and getting to follow in their footsteps – it’s going to be awesome to wear the light blue jersey with the Kauri tree on my chest,” she says.
Apart from sport, and the lessons of training and working hard, Woodman’s parents have always emphasised to their three children the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from.
“Being Māori has always been a big part of me. And it’s probably one thing that I’m really staunch about. I’m not the most fluent or most experienced in Te Ao Māori [Māori worldview], but it’s really important to me and my whānau,” says Woodman, who’s of Ngāpuhi descent.
When her family relocated to Auckland, Woodman and her younger brother went through Māori bilingual units for all of their schooling years, which she’s really grateful for.
“I’ll do all I can to promote and work towards helping our rangatahi [young people] be proud and encourage them to go forward and achieve their dreams,” she says.
She has one child, Kaia, to influence at home – her daughter with fiancée Renee Wickliffe, who has two World Cups to her name with the Black Ferns, and one title with the sevens team.
“Our daughter is really driven and knows what she wants. She’s so talented. It’s cool for her to see us doing a job we both love and worked really hard for,” says Woodman.
“She comes and trains with us and is now heading into her own sport and trying to figure out what she likes as well.”
Having a fellow professional athlete at home means both understand the emotions and energy it takes to do multiple roles.
“Renee knows what I’m going through and vice versa. So when I’ve had a really big day, she knows the pains that we all go through which makes things easier,” Woodman says.
Woodman hasn’t been idle during her injury period. She’s taken up a building apprenticeship – inspired by her dad who has always “tutu-ed” with jobs around the house.
“I’m not a person to sit still, and building is pretty awesome. You get to be creative in your own way. I’ve started to build some planter boxes down home. They’re nothing crazy but it’s a start,” she says.
The apprenticeship has been set up specifically for professional athletes and Woodman has completed one module since starting early this year. The programme should take about three years to finish.
“I still have to do my work placement, but that’s the cool thing – my cousin has his own building company up here, so I’ve teed it up to go and hang out for a couple of days a week with him,” says Woodman. “I’m a learner by doing, so I just want to get work experience and put what I’m reading in the book into practice.”
In a pre-Covid world, the gold medal match for the women’s rugby sevens at the Tokyo Olympics would have been played over the past weekend.
And if the Black Ferns sevens dominance in the opening tournaments in this year’s world series – eventually taking out the 2020 championship – is an indication of who may have been gunning for gold in Tokyo, then the Black Ferns were looking like a strong chance.
But a global pandemic had other plans. And so the team, and the world, will have to wait one more year to see who will be at the big dance at the Tokyo Games.
Whether Woodman is planning for her future on or off the field, she is tracking well to get her body to glide its way back to confidence again.